on 7 March 2014
Even conductors can think of a masterpiece as a warhorse, and under that influence, they don't go out of their way to rediscover why a score became a masterpiece in the first place. Here Mariss Jansons breaks a long tradition of indifference toward the Symphonie fantastique. Every measure of the work is refreshed, listened to for every implied gasp, lurch, and fever dream of its hallucinating hero. The music is invested with liberal doses of Romantic spontaneity, finding intensity where other conductors find blah. In a word, Jansons is channeling his inner Charles Munch.
the conductor's intent is revealed early in the fist movement, where Berlioz's rhythmic irregularities crowd in. Jansons accentuates the agogic pace and underlines the eerie orchestration. These two tendencies are extended into all five movements - one notices that even the straightforward waltz in Un bal seems ghostly and strange. More striking still is the pastoral Scene aux champs, where no one before Jansons, not even Munch, has found a way to inject an air of strangeness - after all, the whole score is meant to be terrifying and surreal. It's eye-opening to hear the shepherds' serenade turn into shrieks. The cause is helped by the conductor's urgent pacing; too often this movement has been slowed to a trudge.
The really disturbing music belongs to the last two movements, of course, which depict a ride to the scaffold and a witches' black sabbath. Since even the most staid conductors put on their Halloween masks for this music, it's hard to out-Herod Herod. Jansons doesn't try. He relies on exact ensemble to bring out the musics color, abetted by remarkably good sonics, the kind we've become used to from BR Klassik's concert recordings, surely the best on the market. The Bavarian Radio SO makes such a golden noise that the usual Grand Guignol isn't missed. Much the same can be said of the finale, but it's here that Jansons seems a bit foursquare compared to Munch's wild rise. there's not much else to criticize about this vivid reading.
It was a stroke of programming genius to fill the CD out with Varese's Ionisation, since like Berlioz he dreamt up his own eerie sound world a century later. It's eeriness piled on eeriness, and the result is deliciously unearthly, especially in this crystal-clear performance. In all, this CD is a total success, and after a similarly triumphant War Requiem from him, I'm beginning to reassess Jansons as a potentially great conductor.